Ghost Vomit (or How I Came Up with an Idea)

Inspiration: noun \ˌin(t)-spə-ˈrā-shən, -(ˌ)spi-\ A divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation. (Thanks Merriam-Webster . . . . )

Yes. Inspiration. That divine breath of literary genius given to us as sacred revelations wherein we all ascend from poor writer to rich author. Or maybe it’s just the crap that comes out when we drink. Whatever the case, whatever your internal definition of inspiration is, I thought I’d take a moment to ask a few questions. Namely, what inspires you to write a novel? What inspires you to use that plot device or create those characters or personify a pair of rusted scissors?

I am often asked (by myself to myself, actually) where I got an idea for that short story or what I was thinking when I wrote that novel. Since I talk to myself on a regular basis, I usually tell myself the same thing: the idea comes from that mythical land of unicorns and hobgoblins where the magic elves implant thoughts in the cortices of the brain using fairy dust and hammers. When I think I might be asked that question by someone else (which has never happened), the answer I believe I’ll come up with is usually a little more concrete.

I guess, really, there are several different inspirations in any writer’s life. They come from the weirdest of places and–usually–at the oddest times. I give you case in point, two vastly different stories that came from two vastly different inspirations.

Case file: Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors

Castles is–no, really–a fictional memoir about a girl with scissors. Those of you who have read it know what I’m talking about. But the story didn’t start out that way, and it was never intended to go past 4000 words.

In 2003, I was part of a writer’s group online, and that group posted a challenge to write a story dealing with the weather.

“Hey!” I screamed aloud to myself. “I’m a meteorologist. This should be easy!”

Within two hours I had penned a pretty crappy short story about a girl who liked scissors and dust storms. The responses I received might have been something like this:

“What were you thinking?”

“What made you write that?”

“What is your major malfunction?”

I can’t remember what they really said, but it wasn’t glowing praise. I do remember that they argued about an abused woman’s right to fight back, what constitutes vengeance and something about environment-centered psychology. It was interesting, to say the least. And then an author came back with what turned into a seven-year challenge: this story sounds more like the outline of a novel.

Hmmm. Inspiration. That divine breath of literary genius. I wanted to write a short story about dust storms and ended up writing a novel about what makes a person insane.

Case file: Regarding Dead Things on the Side of the Road

The title story of my collection of short stories was actually based on a thought I had in the car one day. While driving home from work, I spotted a dead cat on the side of the road. Traffic had stopped thanks to some well-timed construction, and I found myself coming up with a title before I’d even thought of a plot. It was, as they say, divine inspiration. Of course, I had no idea what the rest of the story was going to be about, but I did have a title.

I wrote a little bit before each story in that collection specifically addressing things like why I wrote this or what gave me the idea to write that. Reading over it while editing, I found it interesting to note that there are so many different things, events, even sounds that can give us inspiration. It’s like a ghost lives within. When something piques its interest, an idea is vomited from its mouth and stains our brain juice.

So what gives you inspiration? Do you hear voices in your head (Castles was written by a voice in my head, actually), or do you read a newspaper clipping and wonder “what if?” Do you start with a theme and invent a plot to wrap around the theme? Do you come up with a line or a title, write it down and say “Hey . . . neat-o.” (Does anyone really say “neat-o” anymore?)

What does the ghost in you see or hear that makes it vomit plots on your brain?


Benjamin X. Wretlind is a genre-bending, couch-surfing author. He lives in Colorado with his wife, kids, dog, hamster and three fish.

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2 comments on “Ghost Vomit (or How I Came Up with an Idea)

  1. It’s amazing that you can remember those inspiring sparks (or breaths or divine heaves). My inspiration comes from so many different sources: news, trees, snow blowing across the prairie, blank looks in my kids’ eyes when I ask “What did you do in school today?”
    What usually happens with me is that occasionally I put a few “neat-o” things together and think “I wonder if I could make a story about that?” Then I work at it for a long time, throw in every other random thought I’ve ever had, and then take out most of those ideas. Eventually, I get a story.

  2. It’s difficult to put my finger on the exact moment of inspiration for any one story. They come from so many different places, and sometimes from many. My current WIP is actually five different ideas which have come together in one place (and there’s still work to be done and inspiration to be found).
    A part of me doesn’t want to know where the ideas come from, because I worry that knowing might make them stop (kind of like Joey and Chandler refused to change the channel when they got free porn on their TV, for all the Friends fans out there).
    Thanks for the great, thought-provoking post!

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